Parents are being urged to expose their young children to a wide range of vegetables amid concerns too many are filling up on sugary fruit pouches.
The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) said tougher, mandatory regulations were needed regarding the amount of “free sugar” that can be included in baby and toddler foods.
Free sugar can refer to both sugar which is added to foods and beverages by manufacturers and to sugar naturally present in honey, syrups and fruit juices.
RCPCH experts said there is too much emphasis on sweet foods in pouches and jars, while parents also tend to puree fruits as a first food for their babies during home cooking.
This leads to children consuming far too much sugar, including from fruit puree and liquid fruit, at the expense of becoming familiar with more sour-tasting vegetables.
The RCPCH said consuming too many foods high in free sugars risks babies developing a sweet tooth early on which can lead to tooth decay, poor diet and becoming overweight.
Professor Mary Fewtrell, the RCPCH’s nutrition lead, said: “Part of the problem is that baby weaning products often contain a high proportion of fruit or sweeter-tasting vegetables – and parents also often use fruit or sweet-tasting vegetables as first foods at home.
“Pureed or liquid baby foods packaged in pouches also often have a high energy density and a high proportion of sugar.
“If sucked from the pouch, the baby also misses out on the opportunity to learn about eating from a spoon or feeding himself.
“Baby foods can be labelled ‘no added sugar’ if the sugar comes from fruit – but all sugars have the same effects on the teeth and on metabolism.
“It’s important to recognise that babies have an innate preference for sweet tastes but the key is not to reinforce that preference and to expose them to a variety of different flavours and food textures.
“Babies are very willing to try different flavours if they’re given the chance – and it’s important that they’re introduced to a variety of flavours including more bitter-tasting foods such as broccoli and spinach from a young age.”
Prof Fewtrell said family life was busier than ever, leading to a rise in the popularity of convenient jars and pouches.
But she said parents would benefit from more information on the impact of free sugars.
She added: “For parents making their own baby food, we’d encourage them to balance the sweeter tastes with more bitter ones.
“We’re not saying that babies shouldn’t have fruit – it’s just about balance.
“Introducing vegetables that are less sweet, such as broccoli and spinach, helps babies develop a more varied palate so they are more likely to enjoy a balanced diet as they get older.”
An accompanying report from the RCPCH said the “current food environment is awash with cheap and abundant sugar”.
It added: “There is no nutritional requirement for free sugar in infants and children, and over-consumption of free sugar, especially in liquid form, is linked to a range of health conditions, both immediate (including dental caries) and in later life (including overweight and Type 2 diabetes).”
The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) recommends that free sugars provide no more than 5% of daily total energy intake for those aged two years and over, and even less for children under two.
However, the National Diet and Nutrition Survey shows the average daily intake for one-and-a-half to three-year-olds is 11.3% – more than double the recommended amount.
The RCPCH report said: “Due to the lack of mandatory labelling regulations for free sugars, foods and drinks labelled ‘no added sugar’ or ‘naturally-occurring sugar’ may in fact contain free sugar made from honey or fruit juice.”
The report said children should instead consume intact fresh fruits.
Declan O’Brien, director general of the British Specialist Nutrition Association, said: “BSNA members wholeheartedly support measures to improve infant health and have been meeting with Public Health England to discuss reducing the sugar content of products where possible. Baby food products are already tightly regulated and are also tailored to meet the specific needs of young children.
“At the same time, BSNA member companies are always working to improve their products and are keen to engage with experts on this issue.”